Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times, in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films:

There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny.

The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment.

There's something Goldberg doesn't mention, which is that when they've tried this kind of thing in the past, conservatives have failed miserably. The problem isn't that pop culture isn't a good way to influence people's political beliefs, it's that when conservatives have tried to use pop culture for those ends, the results have been almost uniformly awful. What was supposed to be funny wasn't funny, what was supposed to be thrilling was boring, and what was supposed to get your toes tapping and your head nodding produced nothing but derisive laughter.

To a degree liberals have this problem too, because if your primary intention in producing a piece of art/entertainment is to have a political impact, the art/entertainment is probably not going to be very good. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work because they aren't attempts by a group of liberals who happen to be comedy writers and performers to use comedy to advance liberal goals, they're attempts by a bunch of comedy writers and performers who happen to be liberals to use politics to be funny.

Nevertheless, even when they set out to make a political point through popular culture, liberals usually do it much better than conservatives. That's mostly because when it happens it's people who are already really good at what they do taking their art and turning it political. So when Eminem decides to release an anti-George W. Bush song just before the 2004 election, it may not be his best song ever, but it's pretty good, because he's Eminem and he knows what he's doing. When liberals decide to make an anti-fracking movie, Matt Damon and John Krasinski write it and star in it, and Gus Van Sant directs it, and even if it isn't Citizen Kane, it's a polished Hollywood production, because those guys know what they're doing.

When people on the right try to do the same, it isn't the A-team doing it, or even the B-team. You get a couple of kids from the Campus Republicans who happen to like hip-hop making their own anti-Obama rap, and the result is less than inspiring. You get something like Silver Circle, an animated libertarian movie supposedly coming to theaters soon, in which the dollar collapses, the Federal Reserve takes over the country with its police force of jackbooted thugs, and brave rebels fight back by minting their own currency (and, apparently, engaging in some gun battles). Sadly the preview is not embeddable, but click that link and you'll see something that looks like it was put together by your nephew and a few of his buddies over a couple of weekends, stringing together every political thriller cliche they could come up with and wrapping it in all the high-quality production values of one of those crazy Taiwanese news videos. The animation is so bad It would have to take a bullet train overnight to even get within sight of the uncanny valley. I'm sure the people who made it worked hard on it, and this kind of thing is harder than it looks, but that's kind of my point.

Not that I'm saying people shouldn't write songs and make their own propaganda movies if the spirit moves them. Let a hundred flowers bloom. It's better than having governments do it, and a robust political movement should incorporate everything from lobbying to organizing to running for office to writing songs. But just don't expect that in and of themselves the pieces of art will have that great an impact. And chances are that the more seriously you're taking yourself as you do it, the worse it'll be.

Comments

The bigger issue for conservatives is the simple reality that liberals are much more likely to go into the creative arts than conservatives. As a result the talent pool of liberals is far deeper than the talent pool is for conservatives.

This is the inverse of small business owners/military officers were the talent pool of conservatives is far deeper.

Different fields attract people with different personality types and personality types strongly influence political beliefs. Conservatives are generally more conscientiousness which is very important in having a successful career in institutions like the military but liberals advantages in open mindness means we will always dominate the creative arts.

One other thing to look at is the high incidence of Liberals being "right" about an issue. A movie which features the completely true science of climate change done up in a somewhat fictionalized form (The Day After Tomorrow comes to mind) is seen as Liberal Propaganda because Liberals believe in climate change. Similarly, a movie which features a difficult situation that leads a young woman to consider abortion is seen in the same light even though it is simply an account of an everyday occurrence. Therein, the incidence of what conservatives call liberal propaganda is much larger than the actual activity of liberals making films with the intent to persuade.

Further, can you actually see a talented conservative make a pro-fracking film? The science just doesn't back up anything good they would have to say in defense of the practices of the fracking indusry.

Another difference, and key reason for liberal success at humor/pop culture, is that libs/progressives are willing to include themselves as the objects of their humor. The nature of humor is that the comic holds up a mirror to our foibles -- "we're ALL bozos on this bus." Jon Stewart frequently includes himself --indeed, all Americans -- among the flawed.

Can you imagine a conservative pundit doing the same? Theirs is a stream of certitude that will brook no taint of self-doubt.

Without that quality, any attempt to create pop culture would quickly devolve into dogma, preachiness, and didacticism. (Which is why conservatives dominate the radio talk show circuit...sound bites can be neither ambiguous nor generate dialogue.)

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